December 28, 2007

Almost the Rhetoric Beat

Julie Bosman has a tiny glimmer of the right idea in her blog post at The New York Times today. She examines a political ad by John Edwards and almost makes the kind of observation we might expect to see from the rhetoric beat.

In the first ad, titled “Born For,” Mr. Edwards tells New Hampshire voters that while “the establishment did nothing,” corporate greed took over Washington, insurance lobbyists killed health care and jobs were lost as a result.

“As much as we like to think so, good intentions won’t change a thing,” Mr. Edwards continues, in an apparent jab at Senator Barack Obama and his campaign’s message of hope. “Corporate greed won’t be stopped without a president who fights for you. Saving the middle class is going to be an epic battle, and that’s a fight I was born for.”

Determining intention is of particular interest to me. I’ve even developed a theory in regard to it. Perhaps a more accurate way to say it is that I’ve re-theorized the illocutionary act of speech-act theory. Austin’s formula, F(p),  deals only with propositional content and illocutionary force, but mine attempts to account for the role of rhetoric in the illocutionary act: Fr(p)/C -> PE. F = the force of a statement–what we are doing when we utter it, i.e. asserting, directing, commiserating, expressing, or declaring. The exponent r represents the “rheme”–the unit(s) of rhetoric, i.e. those rhetorical forms chosen by the speaker to make the message persuasive. (p) = the propositional content of the statement. And, finally, we must divide by the context–the rhetorical situation–to separate the speech act from other potential situations. That leads us towards a perlocutionary effect, i.e. what happens in regard to the statement.

In order for the formula to work (i.e. give you some kind of reliable result regarding a speaker’s intention), you must have credible data to fill out the parts of the formula. Guessing doesn’t count. Assumptions don’t count.

When Bosman says a line in Edward’s ad is an “apparent jab at Senator Barack Obama and his campaign’s message of hope” she’s moving in the right direction in regard to a rhetoric beat but she doesn’t really know what she’s doing (I’m not claiming she’s wrong; I’m claiming she’s giving us an assumption and further assuming it’s politically useful). How does she know this?

“As much as we like to think so, good intentions won’t change a thing.” This is an enthymeme, aka the “failed syllogism” or the “rhetorical syllogism.” An enthymeme is persuasive because one or more parts of the logical sequence is left unstated. What makes this persuasive is that the reader/auditor fills in the missing part with whatever works. So the line can mean different things to different people and still persuade. That’s exactly how it’s supposed to work.

I would say Edward’s certainly means for Democratic voters to make a comparison between himself and other Democrats (does it matter which one?– he’s in a “race” with all of them). Beyond that I’m not prepared to go unless you’re just fascinated with my opinions. And since I know that’s not true (and Bosman should realize this, too), my leaving it open helps bring you, dear reader, into the conversation.

Rather than give us an assumption, Bosman should instead give us a range of possibilities and reasons for those possibilities. She should call the tactic what it is and explain how and why politicians use it. And, you know, she doesn’t have to come to some grand conclusion about it. Leaving the question of intention open, using it as an entry point for civic discussion (a comments feature would be nice), would be one way to effectively use the rhetoric beat in this case.

One Response

  1. Tim 

    Excellent! Right on.